Hiking Italian Style (And Other Things We Did in Italy)

Posted by on Jul 8, 2011 in General Travel, Italy | 5 Comments

When we asked people what we should try to see and do while on the northwestern coast of Italy, the common answer was always “hiking.” So we took their advice and headed to Camogli for our first Italian hike along the ocean.

San Rocco; View from the trail

San Rocco; View from the trail.

Camogli is about a 30 minute train ride from Genoa (Genova), but it’s worlds away from the bustling city atmosphere. It’s a quiet, hilly, little coastal town that serves as the gateway to a challenging 18 km circuit that winds along to Portofino and Santa Margherita. The hike is clearly mapped out in Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Italy” guidebook (see our own map here), but that book’s author seems to think that climbing Everest is a nice way to spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon. In other words, his rating methodology for hikes is seriously whacked.

After hiking the “gentle, sloping staircase” that leads from Camogli to the tiny town of San Rocco, we were already drenched in sweat. That staircase was, conservatively speaking, about 1 km long and composed of about 2000 stairs. But hey, who’s counting?

The hike then got a little more difficult: Some sections were along steep cliffs that dropped straight down to the ocean below, and we had to hold on to chains that were anchored into the cliff’s rocky walls. Ambulance chasers in the US would salivate at the thought of something like this, but Italians didn’t seem to mind very much.  Then again, we only saw 3 or 4 other people on that part of the trail – maybe the others fell off the cliffs.

Hiking, Italian Style

Hiking, Italian Style. Notice the chain that Robin is holding in her left hand.

Hours later, we reached the town of San Fruttuoso, which is really just an abbey, a couple of bars and restaurants, a pebbly beach, and a ferry port for tourists. We drank a couple of beers, cooled off, got back on the trail, and reached the swanky town of Portofino a few hours later. Just in time for a gelato and a ferry ride to Santa Margherita where we caught the train back to Genova.

Portofino

Portofino. Check out the giant yacht!

A few days later, we hiked something a little similar (though much less treacherous) when we set out to walk between all 5 villages of Cinque Terre. Made famous by PBS travel correspondent Rick Steves, Cinque Terre is a collection of 5 picturesque villages that are difficult to reach by car, but easily accessed by train or boat. Each village is built on steep hillsides covered by fruit orchards and vineyards, but the quaintness has been replaced by hordes of American tourists.

Luckily, these masses can be avoided. First, you can book a hotel in Manarola, the least busy of the 5 towns. Since many tourists clear out come evening, you’ll have the place to yourselves by 7:30 pm. Second, you can head up on the hiking trails. The tourists stay low (mainly because they’re lazy), and you can hike along some fabulous trails that provide amazing vistas of the Mediterranean.

Corniglia

Corniglia, the middle town in Cinque Terre.

Robin on the trails above Corniglia

Robin on the trails above Corniglia.

Beetle Above Corniglia

Beetle above Corniglia, Cinque Terre.

Following our 4 days in Cinque Terre, we hopped the train to Florence and made a minor detour to Pisa. Our innkeeper in Manarola recommended checking our luggage at Pisa’s train station and walking 20 minutes to see the tower. Once again, it was clogged with tourists – but definitely worth the quick stop.

Tower of Pisa

Does this thing really need a caption?

Florence was equally tourist-filled, but we hit the Uffizi museum, the statue of David, the Ponte Vecchio, and other well-known sites. The Italian government may as well turn Florence into a giant museum because it’s completely covered with incredible works of art. The true work of art in Florence, however, is gelato! We thought we’d stumbled into gelato paradise until we took the train to … Bologna.

Skyline of Florence

Skyline of Florence.

Florence at Dusk

Florence at dusk.

Sunset behind the Ponte Vecchio

Sunset behind the Ponte Vecchio.

Bologna was not only gelato super-heaven (try Venchi if you can) but all-around food heaven. If you want to know more, see Robin’s post here. It also lies smack in the middle of Italy’s “motor valley”, which is home to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ducati, and Maserati, so I made a half-day pilgrimage to Maranello (see post here).

Finally, we hopped on our last Italian train and made for the coast – the eastern coastal city of Ancona, where we boarded an overnight Croatian ferry to Split. On the off chance that someone is considering making a similar trip, may I recommend that you don’t opt for the overnight ferry (Robin disagrees. She liked it). While the accommodations were fine, the walls of the cabins were paper thin and the Italian tourists that shared these walls weren’t capable of shutting their traps! They made noise until 11:30 at night and woke us up promptly at 5:00 am. Maybe I’m getting old, but common courtesy is something that Italian tourists seem to forget to bring along once they leave the country. Oh, and the ferry booking agency is awful. Go for the high speed ferry that gets you to Croatia in 4 hours and sleep in a real bed once you get to Split!

The Slow Ferry

The Slow Ferry. This ferry takes 10 hours to get from Ancona to Split.

5 Comments

  1. Sandy
    July 10, 2011

    OK. I could have done without that chain picture. Is there not a guide for trail conditions in Italy? Anyway, it all looks beautiful. I found myself sighing longingly for such a great escape. I would go in a minute if someone told me there was no internet there.

    I am glad you are still having wonderful adventures. I can’t wait to hear about Africa. Be careful if you go to the gorillas. On second thought, they are probably less dangerous than some of the people I have seen lately.

    Love you both and wishing for good times that just keep coming.

    mxxx

    Reply
  2. Ed
    July 16, 2011

    What? The two of you did not take a leaning picture of yourselves at the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Okay, I’ll stop…

    Reply
  3. ondrej
    March 8, 2014

    hi there, i like your travel blog. we took the same trail from san rocco to san fruttuoso few years ago and i can confirm it’s pretty hard. nevertheless on all the local signage it was marked as the highest difficulty, so we weren’t surprised :). there were alternative trails deeper in the mountains, but little longer – those were marked as mid-difficulty iirc. you’ve got great pictures btw! greeting from czech republic, ondrej

    Reply
    • Pierre
      March 9, 2014

      Thanks for the compliments, and we loved the Czech Republic BTW!

      Reply
  4. Deb Butterwick
    August 28, 2014

    did the trail accidentally – have never fully recovered – but proud of an amazing experience that i will never forget – chains/tears/sweat aside – wouldn’t change a thing. Live a little…….learn a lot.

    Reply

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